Thursday, December 18, 2014

Shame and the public speaker: Wisdom from @BreneBrown

This year, I've had a few speakers who came off the stage consumed with shame, convinced they had failed. Some went through that in practice, others when it was time for the real talk. I didn't agree with them at all, but that didn't change the reality of their feeling. The speakers I worked with wanted their videos destroyed or redone, couldn't hear the congratulations, decided their brand-new talk was an utter failure, and didn't see one iota of good in what they had done.

And they have that in common with none other than Brené Brown, whose 2010 TEDxHouston talk on vulnerability is now one of the most-watched TED talks ever. She used a later talk at TED on shame to describe her reaction to that stellar talk, describing a conversation with a friend in which she contemplated how to keep her TEDx video from seeing the light of day. The numbers she's speaking about are the number of people she thinks will see the video:
....[Brown's friend] said, "I saw your talk live-streamed. It was not really you. It was a little different than what you usually do. But it was great." And I said, "This can't happen. YouTube, they're putting this thing on YouTube. And we're going to be talking about 600, 700 people." And she said, "Well, I think it's too late"....
So I looked back up and she said, "Are you really going to try to break in and steal the video before they put it on YouTube?" And I said, "I'm just thinking about it a little bit." She said, "You're like the worst vulnerability role model ever." And then I looked at her and I said something that at the time felt a little dramatic, but ended up being more prophetic than dramatic. I said, "If 500 turns into 1,000 or 2,000, my life is over." I had no contingency plan for four million. 
And my life did end when that happened. And maybe the hardest part about my life ending is that I learned something hard about myself, and that was that, as much as I would be frustrated about not being able to get my work out to the world, there was a part of me that was working very hard to engineer staying small, staying right under the radar.
Some of the ashamed speakers I've worked with have said that they wanted their talks to be perfect. Brown says shame is the birthplace of perfectionism. She's quick to differentiate shame--the idea that you are bad--from guilt, which focuses more on your behavior than you, and embarrassment, in which we know that we share this same feeling with many people. Shame (and its cousin perfectionism), on the other hand, feels isolating. It's about not feeling good enough, or worthy, of the praise you are getting. "Who do you think you are?" is a common self-reflection when you're feeling shame, Brown says.

Brown has recorded a short and outstanding audiobook on shame, worth reading particularly for learning about the ways shame differs for men and women. Men, Women and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough will walk you through how shame differs from other, related feelings, and how men and women experience it differently. Appearance, for example, plays a major role in shame for women. As a woman speaker, you should have this on your list.

In her TED talk, Brown said, " For women, shame is do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat....Shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we're supposed to be. And it's a straight-jacket."

Public speaking is risky, and to be successful, it requires you to be out of that straight-jacket, accessible, and vulnerable. There's no better way to connect with an audience. But as Kerry Washington said in a recent speech:
....we as women put ourselves in this situation of feeling like we can’t take a risk, like in order to step out there we have to be perfect, because we’re scared that if we don’t say the right thing, or do the right thing, that we’ll reflect poorly on ourselves and our community, whether that community be women, people of color, both.
Only with risk can you have great reward, and only when you feel you're good enough will you be able to hear the praise. Or, as John Steinbeck wrote, "And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” It's worth remembering that approaching a talk as a perfectionist means you are doomed to be disappointed, no matter what you do. It can hamstring a speaker like nothing else. But if you want to be good, you'll understand the risks and the rewards, and do the best you can.

One of my clients messaged me after a big new keynote she and I had worked on. Her report was pretty dismal: She didn't feel rested, followed a great speaker, heard people talking during her talk, and analyzed the Twitter stream and found it lacking. She was being paid for this keynote, and had wanted to deliver a good quality talk. But now, she sounded ready to toss the talk, even though it was one she hoped to give with variations for a few months more.

The next day, the organizers told her they saw it completely differently. They loved her talk, had had fantastic audience feedback, and, on the strength of that, invited her to speak again later this year. So much for the speaker's perspective.

So here's a thought, speakers, when you are feeling shame about a talk that others are telling you they honestly feel was good: Why not sit down and figure out, in Brown's words, which part of you is "working very hard to engineer staying small, staying right under the radar"? Because if you let perfectionism and shame keep you and your talk offstage, that's exactly what you will be doing. And then you'd be silencing yourself as a speaker.

Watch Brown's TED talk about shame, which is funny, wise, and revealing. And that TEDx talk she was worried would be seen by 500 to 700 people? It's up to 17 million views as of this writing, and it's completely changed Brown's life, work, and success. I'm so glad she didn't succeed in limiting those views of her wonderful first TED talk.

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